In the richly biodiverse heart of PNG's waters, all sorts of diver requests can be met on a single liveaboard trip, from the world's tiniest pygmy seahorse to manta rays. MARK B HATTER packs all the photo-gear he owns and sets off
IT’S BEEN A RESTLESS 48 hours of continuous travel linked by five different flight segments, including a 14-hour long haul across the Pacific Ocean. Only now do I begin to relax. I’ve finally arrived in Alotau, Papua New Guinea – or PNG, as the country is known regionally.
I see my last, short travel segment representative waiting, a local driver standing by a dusty pick-up holding a placard emblazoned with my name. A minute later, amazingly, my last piece of checked baggage arrives at the bottom of the luggage trolley.
The worry of “getting there with all of my stuff” has always been an acid reflux-inducing exercise. No worries now, I’m here, arriving a day early as a precaution should a bag of critical kit decide to arrive elsewhere.
I’m ready for a hot shower, a cold beer and a well-deserved afternoon nap under the cabana at the Driftwood, my last overnight check-point on Milne Bay before I board the Golden Dawn for 10 days of exploration.
This is my second trip in three years diving Milne Bay on the Golden Dawn. My first trip was so good, diving WW2 vintage aircraft wrecks and unexplored virgin reefs, that I had to book again.
ON THIS TRIP MUCK-DIVES, wall-dives, bommies, fringe reefs, skull caves and whatever else suits the mood of the day are all in the plan.
I have brought every piece of photo gear I own, 20kg over my allowance in fact, and gladly paid the overweight fee claimed by both Qantas and Air PNG.
Golden Dawn’s owner Craig de Wit has been plying the tropical waters off PNG from the Eastern Fields in the Coral Sea to New Ireland on the north-east coast for almost three decades.
His Milne Bay expeditions lie in the heart of PNG’s most diverse diving, which is why he can offer all the items listed above on a single cruise.
Refitted in 2013 with just about everything new, from engines and generators to compressors and cabin/suite amenities, the Golden Dawn caters to small groups of like-minded divers. De Wit currently runs private trips but you may be lucky enough to be invited to join his expeditions. [Editor’s note:Since this article was written Craig de Wit has suffered – and survived – a bull-shark attack.]
I had good juju on my prior trip to Milne Bay and an earlier trip to the Eastern Fields on which the boat hosted only seven guests. Again I have good juju this time, because there are only five divers besides me.
Despite my excitement, I crash hard after an early dinner with Craig, his wife Kamila and frequent trip-leader Bob Halstead. A few glasses of wine and nine solid hours of sleep serve to reset my internal clock after crossing 14 time zones.
Next morning we steam east under a blue sky on a smooth sea. We will check ourselves with our first dive at Banana Bommie at the mouth of Milne Bay proper before arriving just before dark at Dinah’s Beach, arguably the best muck-site in Milne Bay province.
ON MY PREVIOUS TRIP I logged just over eight hours’ bottom time in one day, cataloguing a phenomenal nine species of anemonefish hosted by four anemone species off a beach spanning no more than 100m.
Dinah’s is bookended by a freshwater stream at one end and at the other by a reef named Deacon’s Point, showcased by a vertical wall that plummets more than 1000m. Often divers drop in from a RIB at Deacon’s first to explore the wall, before working their way back to an undercut ledge along the shore at 10m.
Here a shooter can capture dynamic images of both tropical trees overhanging the cliff above the water and colonies of red gorgonians or pastel-coloured soft corals below the water, all in the same wide-angle shot.
Then it’s an easy swim over a steeply sloping black-sand bottom back to the boat looking for shrimp gobies, ghost pipefish and imperial shrimp hosted by metre-long sea cucumbers, with multi-coloured frogfish along the way.
At the other end of the beach, the freshwater stream positively influences significant and healthy stands of branching corals, replete with colourful butterflyfish, angelfish and shoals of damselfish and anthias.
The reef along the beach then gives way to patches of Halimeda algae and small coral-encrusted rock piles. It’s a macro photographer’s paradise, and those skilled at finding cool things under their cloak of camouflage share their finds with everybody else by using marking twigs stuck vertically into the bottom – eco-friendly signposts.
Golden Dawn is parked smack in the middle just off the beach, the perfect location for open-deck diving. At the end of the day, total underwater minutes booked lies somewhere between the limits of your stamina and your dive-computer.
We spend the following day at Dinah’s. I don’t break my personal best this time, but am able to garner a few other noteworthy achievements.
First, I find, and mark, my first frogfish. Until now, I’ve had to rely on others’ marking twigs. Second, I master the use of snoots on my strobes, allowing limited and dramatic subject highlighting while virtually eliminating backscatter.
Ironically, the visibility is excellent, negating any backscatter concerns or need for snoots!
After lunch we make our way to a local village. There we met a tribal guide who takes us deep into the jungle to visit one of the renowned skull caves, an ancient burial ground of sorts for both village families and enemies (a hole in the skull marked the difference between friend and foe).
It’s a 30-minute walk, mostly uphill under triple-canopy jungle, to reach the cave. Eventually we arrive at the limestone entrance. We descend a short distance into the hillside and reach a small chamber where we find dozens of skulls stacked around a stalagmite.
The hike is one not to miss – the experience leaves me feeling part-voyeur, part-chronicler and part-historian.
THAT EVENING WE CELEBRATE a day of superb diving and cultural discovery with bottles of Australian red and white wines against the backdrop of a rose-coloured sunset.
We watch the sun silhouette and then set behind the primitive dugout canoes of the paddlers who’ve followed us from the village back to the Golden Dawn.
The following morning we steam to Wahoo Point, then on to an offshore reef named Linda’s. At Wahoo, Craig hunts for the world’s smallest pygmy seahorse while I search for the white-bonnet anemonefish.
Incredibly, Craig finds the critter almost immediately – “right where he was a few weeks ago,” he tells us back at the boat. He has marked the spot. I want the seahorse as much as the white-bonnets, which have eluded me, so I go for the sure thing on my next dive.
But with an animal the size of a rice-grain that blends in with the sponges on which it perches, it’s needle-in-haystack time. Finally, 100 bar later, I spot movement. The seahorse is pectoral-fin-paddling to a different sponge nearby, and I get my shot.
It’s bonus time on Wahoo. “I’ve found a pair of white-bonnets,” Bob tells me before I can peel off my wetsuit. I glance at my computer. It’s already reading a thumbs-up for an immediate dive, so I hot-swap to a full bottle of nitrox and follow Halstead to the large leathery anemone housing an adult pair of white-bonnets. My juju continues to remain good.
At Linda’s, the late-afternoon current is pulling strong and schools of bright orange anthias are going on a crazy feed upcurrent of the reef wall.
We are enthralled with the sheer number of anthias and want to make a second dive on the site. Alas, there is much on the diving agenda in the days ahead, so we move on.
Overnight we travel south to Samarai Island and anchor just after 8am in a shallow channel between two islands. Immediately, an armada of small dugouts launches towards us from a nearby beach. They are piloted mostly by laughing little kids, eager to show off to the voyagers anchored in their channel.
It’s time to get wet, so we gather around the briefing board, which reads, “Giants@Home.” The chalk-drawn cartoon depicts a mid-channel bommie with circling manta rays.
Craig cautions us to move slowly around the bommie, a manta-cleaning station, to avoid chasing off the large fish.
The site does not disappoint. We find mantas on every dive and eventually our encounters become routine – a word I never imagined using when looking for these majestic animals.
WE ARE AT THE SOUTHERN END of Milne Bay near the abyssal Coral Sea, so the water is several degrees cooler because of frequent upwelling, and I’m driven to dive with a hooded vest to keep off the chill.
It’s also more turbid – the sea is saturated with rich planktonic life-forms, which is why the mantas are here in the first place. On one dive my computer dips to a chilly 25°C and I long for the balmy 27°C water just a few dozen miles to the north on Linda’s, the last reef we dived before sailing to Samarai.
As the days wear on, we settle into a comfortable rhythm of endless diving, eating, sleeping and diving again, mindless of the day of the week or even the time of day.
The arch of the sun becomes our timepiece and every dive-site along our route, like Kwato Pier, Bawaga Reef and Black and Silver Reef, offers something new.
We had dived several WW2 aircraft wrecks on our previous expedition to the northern reaches of Milne Bay, but there are few such sites on our current southern circuit, so we stick to shooting the prolific and diverse marine life.
Toward the end of the voyage, Craig has one more muck-site for our team to explore, a small cove called Observation Point on Normandy Island.
The site is famous for its effluvial sand slope at the mouth of the bay and Dinah’s goby, a tiny but brilliantly yellow fish with a white body stripe and a red belly.
Dinah’s goby can be found only locally, typically below 30m, at a few locations around Milne Bay province, including Observation Point.
Hell-bent on finding shooting that goby for my image collection, I plan a deco-dive route to a max 40m from below the boat back to the effluvial sand slope, where I will stage up and out of saturation shooting the four different species of sand-diver swimming in and above the “liquid sands.”
It’s a well-planned dive – too bad the goby rains on my parade. And I’ll have to be more patient next dive to close in on the very skittish sand-divers. “Did you find it?” Bob asks me excitedly as I climb back aboard the Dawn.
“Find what?” I say, almost afraid to ask. As we both doff our kit and change bottles before relaxing during our surface interval, Bob reassures me that I’ll get my shot. “I found a Dinah’s goby in a soda-can at 34m right under the boat. I marked it with a stick,” he says.
“I missed that one,” I say, incredulous that I missed the marker. Didn’t I descend directly below the boat?
Home court has its advantages. Craig, Bob and the Dawn’s divemasters know every nook and cranny of each site we dive, and all are experts at the art of macro critter-finding. I make a note to observe the guys on future dives as they navigate and hunt – taking away the finer points of their careful observation techniques might serve me well on future dives.
ON THE NEXT DIVE I do shoot a pair of brilliant yellow gobies perched on the sea-squirt they call home, but they are not the rare Dinah’s goby. And I don’t find Bob’s marker – perhaps it drifted away, or else I still need work on my underwater navigation skills. But I do find a pair of ghost pipefish, on my own, at the boundary of my nitrox mix.
Too soon, it’s time to go. There is plenty left to see, but the end of our cruise is nearing, and reluctantly we must work our way back toward Alotau.
But Craig has a final surprise for us. We will steam back to Dinah’s Beach and set traps overnight in an attempt to catch nautiluses, which forage along vertical walls off Deacon’s Point at depths of more than 300m. The traps are baited with chicken necks and set at various depths at which nautiluses might be foraging. We hoped to trap at least one, which would enable us to photograph this rare cephalopod at safe diving depths before releasing it back to the deep.
On the morning of our last full day of diving, crew Martin and Frank set out in the RIB at daybreak to recover the traps. An hour later, they return with good news. The traps have yielded two nautiluses.
The two animals make it a lot easier on everyone, allowing us more individual face-time with the animals.
Back on the Dawn it’s great to see that everyone got their shots before the nautiluses were safely released back to the depths.
At the end of the day, I’m pleased to have added cool images to my collection, including the white-bonnet anemonefish and the pygmy seahorse. And perversely, I’m also happy that I didn’t shoot Dinah’s goby or the sand-divers.
Why? Simple it means yet another expedition to Milne Bay is in order aboard Golden Dawn.
GETTING THERE: Fly via Brisbane, Australia with Qantas, which flies daily from Heathrow. Book a return trip onward to Alotau, PNG with Air Niugini, which offers an extra weight allowance for divers (unlike the cheaper Air PNG). Free visa on arrival.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Golden Dawn, www.mvgoldendawn.com; Chertan, www.mvchertanliveaboard.com; Febrina, www.febrina.com
WHEN TO GO: Dry season October- December, when seas are calmest.
CURRENCY: PNG kina.
HEALTH: Chamber Port Moresby.
PRICES: Flights cost around £1100. One-week liveaboard trips start from US?$2400pp.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.papuanewguinea.travel